A few days ago I stopped in at The Albina Press to buy some coffee beans. I don’t normally spring for Stumptown brew, but I was eager to be home and The Press was the bean outlet nearest to my route.
The thing I like so much about this coffee shop is that it’s a very focused place. It is sparsely decorated, but not remotely sterile. There are comfortable places to sit, there is a counter at which to order your drink, and they even offer a couple of pastries if you are feeling nibblish. They know how to make a drink there, which is evident not only in the quality of their product, but in the barista award plaques displayed on the walls and counter. There isn’t a forest of syrup bottles. They don’t make smoothies or frappies or squishies. They make coffee and espresso and some loose teas. And it’s good.
So I get off the bus in the rain and go inside. It’s seven and pouring and really dark outside. The interior of the shop immediately provides relief from the bus and the rain and the tired ache that’s been creeping up my neck. The deep, rich coffee smell hooks me by my nostrils and draws me towards the counter. On my way I noticed that there are pretty people at all of the tables. They all have Apple laptops and are browsing Craigslist, writing their brilliant Master’s theses, or designing wrapping paper patterns for the holiday season already upon us. I think I see Hillary Clinton in someone’s Skype conference, but as I get close enough to tell for sure, he hurriedly folds his computer closed and gives me the Stink Eye.
Brown bags of preportioned coffee beans are piled around the cash register, stacked three or four high. I survey my immediate options, then the bean menu written on the chalkboard on the wall. Having given up premium beans in favor of a more economical brew some years ago, nothing leaps out as a clear choice, and I decide to ask the guy behind the counter for his opinion.
The barista has one black eye and elaborately styled Emo hair. He is wearing tight black jeans and a new-but-old-looking t-shirt with something spray-painted off-center on the front. He politely asks what I am looking for, and I tell him that I am interested in his take on the beans.
I do this a lot. When spending fourteen or twenty dollars for one pound of coffee, I am much more willing – if not eager – to shelve my characteristic shyness towards strangers and dive into long chats (if that’s what it takes) on the relative acidity of the Sumatran versus the Rwandan beans. It usually goes like this:
- ME: I am looking for some beans.
THEM: What kind of beans do you like?
ME: I tend towards medium-dark roasts – something with a little less caffeine and a little more flavor.
THEM: Our peaberry is really good right now. It’s really floral and vanilla-y.
ME: How about something bigger? I’ve really enjoyed some of your African beans. And a few months ago I had a little of the Nicaragua Los Delirios that I thought was pretty rockin’.
THEM: Okay, I think I know what you are looking for. Why don’t you try the Costa Rican – it’s a lot like the Nicaraguan you liked.
And then I pay and leave happy.
But the black-eyed barista is evidently incapable of engaging in such an exchange. I say I am looking for a darker roast. He says, Do you mean bitter? ‘Cause that’s what I think of when someone says “dark.” I scrunch up my face a little. What kind of a nutter asks for bitter coffee?
I try to be clearer with my request. No, I don’t mean bitter, I say, wondering if someone also knocked his brains loose when they gave him that shiner. I mean roasted dark. Most beans used for espresso are dark roasts. The classic French roast is dark. And, while it is generally accepted that dark roasts don’t make for as complex or subtle a cup as do lighter roasts, to my knowledge asking for a well roasted pound of beans isn’t as criminal as, say, asking for a well done entrecote.
We don’t have any dark roasts. They are all Full City, he tells me, sounding annoyed, as if I should have known, as if I must not understand where I am or with whom I am speaking. He asks if there is any Guatemalan stacked on the counter. That’s what I tell people to get when they come in asking for dark roasts, he says, passing a cup of tea to his previous customer and returning to the counter in front of me. I don’t see any Guatemalan and by now I just want to leave. I want to buy whatever beans lay closest to my left hand. I want to reach out and grab them, throw a wad of cash onto the counter and stomp out towards anywhere else. He asks me to clarify what I really mean when I say “dark.” It’s almost like he wants to help me, but this question is so nonsensical that I can’t think of how to begin my next sentence. I hesitate, agape.
Chewy, I attempt, which I can see in retrospect probably isn’t the most precise adjective I might have picked. I want to say that I think a lot of light roasts turn out too thin in body and too fruity in flavor. I want to tell him that I like darker coffee because it has less caffeine than lighter roasts and because I do, in fact, enjoy a bit of acidity in my morning cup. None of this is coming out, though, and now he has come around the counter, presumably to look at the beans with me. He picks up a bag from the bottom of the pile and passes it to me. See? I knew we had some. The Guatemalan’s right here. He doesn’t say it like he’s happy for me that we’ve found the beans I want. He says it like I should have seen them and now he thinks that in addition to having bad taste in coffee, I am also a moron.
I ask to see and smell the beans, which have come prepackaged from Stumptown Coffee Roasters. A minute ago, I wanted to leave, but now I want to make him work for the sale. No, no, no, I can’t open the package, even though it’s not sealed. But I am in luck – he has some brewed. He presses two tablespoons of coffee into a demitasse and hands it to me to taste. I take a sip, not paying any attention to the coffee in my mouth, and swallow. It’s fine, I say, I’ll take it.
Fine? The black-eyed barista is not moving any closer to the cash register. He is standing only halfway behind the bar with one hand on his hip, his mouth making incredulous smirk. I echo; it is fine. As in, it will do. As in, I want to go home now. I don’t think it’s fine, he continues, and then with the chipperness of a middle school cheerleader, I think it’s great. I stare blankly; but he is obviously waiting for my riposte. It’s kind of sweet, I sigh, and thin. I am starting to think about leaving again, only in this version of my fantasy, I throw the beans overhand, like a football, and nail him in his non-bruised eye.
But then he says something that frees me: Well, he begins, now exasperated, surely thinking that I will never, ever learn, and that now he’ll have to sanitize the counter where I’ve touched it and apologize to his other customers for subjecting them to such a blasphemous conversation, it tastes like coffee.
I don’t remember exactly how I got out of the coffee shop. All I know is that I did, because I am home now and because I made some coffee this morning. The Guatemalan beans that I bought were, as expected, much too light for my taste. I had to use more beans than usual and it still tasted watery. I do not wish to suggest that the coffee I bought is of poor quality. It’s great coffee, in fact: subtle, nuanced, complex. And light. Good, but not what I wanted and not what I asked for.
I think I know what the black-eyed barista was trying to do when I asked for dark roasted beans. He is a proud member of the Portland Bean Scene. He is probably better educated about coffee than I’ll ever care to be. It’s his thing and he clearly has strong opinions about it. Moreover, he works at a coffee shop with a reputation for serving excellent drinks. He took my reasoned preference as misguided ignorance and he thought he’d educate me, maybe change my mind about things, maybe give me my first “real” taste of coffee.
I can relate, to a point. I was a barista once upon a time, kind of. I was a baker and a bookseller and a deli counter gal who spent a lot of time behind the nearest coffee bar. I know the basics about growing and harvesting and roasting, and am familiar with the profiles of the world’s growing regions. I’ve been to “cuppings,” events hosted by roasters who brew half a dozen pots and then talk participants through a tasting not unlike those for wine. I know what a real macchiato is, and I can make a mean one.
I got my introduction to the mighty bean in a coffee shop not unlike The Albina Press, in fact. It was a serious coffee joint where we did coffee, tea and espresso correctly and traditionally for it’s own sake, out of respect for the bean and the leaf. And while a lot of our customers could tell the difference between a poorly made drink and a good one, there were many who could not be convinced that we knew what they wanted better than they did. Starbucks regulars, for example, have a habit of ordering The Bucks’ proprietary drinks where ever they go, even if those beverages aren’t on the menu. And while it’s not fun to make a drink that you think is a hideous offense to your glorious beans, you still make it. You just overcharge for it.
It’s frustrating to see something that you care about destroyed by what you perceive as a third party’s terrible taste. For cooks, it’s ketchup on prime rib. For bakers, whipping cream in the eclair. And for baristas these days, it seems to be dark roasted coffee beans.
But my understanding of the black-eyed barista’s exasperation towards me isn’t enough to excuse his unprofessional manner. I have never lived so close to a coffee shop as I do to The Albina Press. It is walkable in any weather and they make a really tasty cup. I have long fantasized about walking to my local java joint first thing in the morning for a cup and a browse of the morning’s news – and it’s in my reach, right over there at The Press. But I’m not going there, not any more. I prefer to my caffeine fix without having elbow past the combative hipster barista to get it.
When I saw the black-eyed barista, I felt a little sorry for him that he’d been roughed up. I wondered if he’d been hassled at the bar the previous night (maybe about his silly hairdo), or if he lives with a woman who perhaps doesn’t know how to express her anger in any other way. But walking out of the shop, I didn’t wonder at all about his black eye. I figure it must have been the last person who tried to talk to him about coffee beans.